Skip to content

what the vocabulary of forced migration reveals

Emigrants and proscribed, immigrants and exiled, asylum seekers and refugees. The vocabulary used to designate those who undergo forced migrations reveals the contrasting representations attached to them.

If the media have used the term a lot immigrants to refer to people fleeing under duress from the southern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa to the European Union during the 2010s, the word is almost never applied to the millions of Ukrainian exiles to whom the European Union so rightly grants temporary protection.

A detour through history shows all the interest there is in studying the phenomena of exile, taking into account the vocabulary applied to them. This is one of the guiding threads of my work In exile. Refugees in Europe from the end of the 18th century to the present daywhich aims to put the European and contemporary history of exile into perspective.

This term refers both to an uprooting from one’s homeland, to a forced waiting situation, and to a position from which new forms of mobilization and commitment can assert themselves.

“Exiles” and “outcasts” after the Napoleonic Wars

The final act of the Congress of Vienna in 1815 put an end to the Napoleonic Wars. For the European monarchs, it was a question of redrawing the continent and ensuring peace there.

The Congress of Vienna by Jean Godefroy after the work of Jean-Baptiste Isabey.

The number of opponents then expelled from their country for political reasons increased and these were more and more frequently described in French as “exiled” or “outlawed”.

As Victor Hugo later wrote in the sea ​​workersthe vocabulary itself then contributed to distinguishing the exiles of patriots and liberals – the “proscriptions” – from the migratory movements that had affected the counter-revolutionaries during the French Revolution – the “emigrations”.

At the beginning of the 1820s, in the Europe of the monarchical Restorations, even as Napoleon Bonaparte was ending his life banished to the island of Saint Helena, the revolutions that took place in southern Europe threw Greeks, Italians and Spaniards.

Over the next decade, the suppressed revolutions in Warsaw and central Italy in 1831 further amplified these movements. It was in a context where Polish patriots fleeing Russian repression arrived in France by the thousands – 7,000 of them were rescued by the government in 1832 – that the July Monarchy adopted a first law on “foreign refugees”. .

This text of April 1832, still vague on how to define them, was supplemented by abundant ministerial regulations which specified the contours of this particularly controlled group (see the corpus of ministerial circulars gathered on the site of the ANR AsileuropeXIX program) .

The “refugee” then imposed itself in Western Europe as a new administrative category, which did not prevent people who left under duress from claiming other names: that of exile in French, exile in English or alone in Italian (see the draft European lexicon of exile and asylum for the 19th century offered by the ANR AsileuropeXIX program site).

The unwelcome political exile at the end of the 19th century

The last third of the 19the century marked a new tipping point in the way people forced to leave their countries for their ideas were viewed and treated across the European continent.

Thus, the thousands of men and women who left because of the repression of the Paris Commune in the spring of 1871 were particularly badly received in the countries of asylum which were content to tolerate them – Great Britain, Switzerland, in particular – and where they were sometimes denounced as potential terrorists.

This movement was confirmed at the end of the century, with the intensification of the transnational circulation of anarchists: the political exile was less and less welcome and found himself more frequently assimilated to the figure of the criminal than to that of the hero.

With the two Balkan wars (1912-1913) then the two world wars, the XXe century brought the continent into an era where, more than the repression of insurrections and revolutions, armed conflicts have become the main cause of forced departures abroad.

Exile no longer concerned only political opponents, but entire groups of civilians targeted by the progress of fighting or by policies of mass deportation.

Displaced persons after World War II

In 1945, the migration crisis caused by the Second World War was far from having been interrupted by the armistice. In Western Europe, exile, understood as uprooting from one’s home, represented a mass experience, suffered in the post-war years by millions of “displaced persons” (displaced persons).

This category forged by the Allies allowed them to designate all individuals in a situation of uprooting in the aftermath of the war: survivors of concentration camps in transit, former forced laborers, released prisoners of war, but also expelled from the Eastern territories.

German displaced persons wait in Berlin’s Anhalter station in 1945.
Everett Collection

Among these so-called “displaced” people were also entire groups who, for political reasons, refused to return to their homeland, as was the case for many refractory to returning to the USSR.

While the immediate post-war period had seen this category of “displaced persons” impose itself, the creation by the United Nations of the “High Commissioner for Refugees” in 1950, then the signing of the Geneva Convention the following year , would contribute to putting the “refugee” back in the spotlight.

This 1951 convention was the first to propose a legal and internationally recognized definition of this status, based on the criterion of individual persecution.

If its attribution was generous in Western Europe at the time of the Glorious Thirties, without always taking into account in practice this criterion of individual persecution, the 1980s marked a turning point in this area.

In all the major European countries of asylum, the rate of granting refugee status then fell drastically.

The “exiles” and “migrants” of the “Arab Spring”

Even before 1989, a major geopolitical turning point with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of Europe closed their borders to “asylum seekers”.

Significantly, this expression was then more and more frequently used to refer to those who applied for refugee status, without being certain of obtaining it. The researcher Karen Akoka evokes in her book, Asylum and exile. A history of the refugee/migrant distinctionentry into the “asylum seekers regime” in the 1980s.

It was much later, thanks to the new South-North exiles produced by the “Arab Spring” and by the civil wars in the Horn of Africa, that the word “migrant” imposed itself.

It made it possible to designate people in exile seeking refuge in Europe but also elsewhere, since the continent was not, by far, the first to welcome them.

People rescued by Aquarius personnel off the coast of Libya in May 2018.
Louisa Goulimiaki/AFP

In French, this term had already been used in the 1960s to designate Algerians who came to France after the independence of their country, but it was thus charged with new meanings and placed at the center of media attention.

At the same time, the term migrant was also used in the English-language media, but its use has been the subject of strong criticism since the summer of 2015.

Several voices – those of journalists, researchers, politicians – spoke out against the use of this word, which conveyed a dehumanizing vision of foreigners attempting to cross the Mediterranean at the risk of their lives. In addition to this negative and almost animal connotation, the term “migrant”, in French as in English, locked them in a form of perpetual motion. Finally, it tended to disqualify them in their efforts to seek asylum and obtain refugee status.

Through the European history of exile, we therefore understand that the terms used to designate people forced to leave are neither obvious nor neutral. They offer a certain vision, and sometimes even suppose an explanation, a legitimization or on the contrary a rejection of these migratory movements generated by repression and by war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.